Date
20 August 2017
The new Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn has his work cut out for him trying to mend fences with the rebellious south. Photo: Reuters
The new Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn has his work cut out for him trying to mend fences with the rebellious south. Photo: Reuters

South Thailand Islamic insurgency: The new king’s nightmare

Now that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has been officially proclaimed the new king of Thailand, one of his most urgent tasks is to give immediate attention not only to the ensuing power struggle between the military and the civilian government in Bangkok but also to the escalating south Thailand Islamic insurgency.

The insurgency is an ongoing armed conflict centered in southern Thailand that has lasted for decades.

It mainly took place in the Malay Patani region made up of three southernmost provinces of Thailand, with a population of two million, majority of whom are Muslims.

The region used to be part of the former Sultanate of Pattan until 1785, when it was conquered by the Kingdom of Siam. Since then, the region has fallen under the sovereignty of Bangkok.

However, the fact that people of these three southern provinces are largely Muslims suggests that they would have a lot of difficulties fitting in with mainstream Thai society that is practises Buddhism.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Bangkok was largely tolerant of the Islamic minority and their religious culture in the south, and allowed them a substantial degree of autonomy.

Thanks to the appeasement policy, Bangkok was able to maintain stable relations with the southern Muslims.

However, when the hard-line army general Plaek Phibunsongkhram took power in 1934, he began to toughen his stance on the Islamic south and impose strict de-Muslimization measures on the region.

Such hard-line policies provoked a ferocious backlash and resistance from among the southern Muslims, giving rise to armed separatism.

Then in the 1980s, through the efforts of then premier General Prem Tinsulanonda, Bangkok and the rebellious south reconciled and separatist pressures from the south eased.

Yet, relations between the southern Islamic insurgents and Bangkok once again saw massive deterioration when Thaksin Shinawatra took office as premier in 2001.

In order to maintain his support base among Thai farmers and ride on a tidal wave of populism, Thaksin began to toughen his measures toward the south and mount a relentless crackdown on Islamic insurgents in the region.

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who removed Thaksin from office though a coup in 2006, and who was also a Muslim, tried to repair relations with the disaffected and disgruntled southern Islamic minority, but his attempts largely went futile, not least because he and his military regime had their hands full with endless political turmoil in Bangkok.

In 2013, the Thai government announced that it would put peace talks with the southern Islamic insurgents on hold indefinitely, and relations between the two sides continued to deteriorate.

The new Thai king apparently has his work cut out for him trying to mend fences with the rebellious south.

The problem is, even his highly prestigious late father couldn’t resolve this historical issue throughout his long reign, so how can we expect the new Thai king to achieve any ground-breaking progress on this matter?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 8

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

RT/RA

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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